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The Unknown Conspirator
Did the mysterious Portuguese sea captain help plot Lincoln’s assassination, or was he an informer?
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
According to his own admission, he had run the Indian onto rocks along the coast of Yucatan so often that the copper on her bottom was wrinkled so badly that she leaked constantly. At Belize he had signed on a completely new crew, but he refused to say what had happened to the men who had brought the ship into that port. When she left Belize, the Indian was supposedly bound for Havana, but the Captain said that he had been unable to bring her into the harbor there. Finally he had found himself near Key West, Florida, but instead of entering that well-equipped Federal port, he had gone to isolated Indian Key to repair damage to his ship and take on water and ballast. The course of his voyage after that was even more ludicrous, for he had been caught in the Gulf Stream and was unable to get out of it. For days and for hundreds of miles he had been carried northward like a derelict until the Vicksburg had sighted him.
Captain Celeste, whose real name proved to be Joao M. Celestino, said that he had been born in Lisbon, was 38 years old, unmarried, and had been at sea for seven years. The officer who brought him on board the Vicksburg reported that the Captain had been living in luxurious ease on the Indian. For his 62-foot schooner, he had a crew of six--one Mexican and five Negroes, one of whom served as his cook and personal servant. Although the ship carried no cargo except a cask of palm oil which had been picked up at sea, it was extraordinarily well supplied with wines, cigars, food, and livestock such as chickens and pigs. And the Captain had about $3,000 in gold and silver in his possession, all of which he insisted was his own money and not the proceeds of any sale for the benefit of the owner.
Aside from being caught in the Gulf Stream, the only explanation Captain Celeste could give for being so near the Carolina coast was that after missing the other ports he had decided to take his ship into Chesapeake Bay and head for Baltimore. Some of his crew lived there and could pilot the Indian up the bay.
The officers of the Vicksburg had the thankless job of policing thousands of miles of hostile coastline in wartime, and all too often they had been made monkeys of by clever blockade runners who were able to slip past them in fine, fast, modern ships that had been built abroad for the specific purpose of eluding the blockading squadron. The Indian had brought a cargo of cotton out of Matamoros, and it might very well be trying to pick up more cotton somewhere along the Carolina coast. There was enough against Captain Celeste to hold him and let an admiralty court decide the matter. If the court ruled that he was innocent it would set him free and restore the schooner to him.
Shortly before noon Captain Braine officially ordered the Indian seized as a prize of war. Her crew was brought to the Vicksburg, while Captain Celeste and his cook were sent back to the Indian with a prize crew of seven navy men who had orders to take the little schooner to Washington and bring the case belore the admiralty court there. The Vicksburg towed the slow-moving, foul-bottomed ship lor two hours; then, sighting a suspicious-looking steamer on the horizon, the gunboat dropped its tow so it could give chase.
Captain Celeste’s troubles were just beginning. The Indian arrived in Washington on May 7, when the city was tense with the news of Grant’s first encounter with Lee in the Battle of the Wilderness. It was a month of dreadful Federal losses, and there was no time to pay much attention to the obscure captain of a tiny ship suspected of blockade running. Celeste (or Celestino, as he preferred to be called) was held in the Washington Navy Yard for a day or two and then was imprisoned in the Central Guard House.
He was brought belore the prize court, where he retold the story of his hapless cruise. His cook testified in his behalf, stating that he had been offered only the ordinary rate of pay for the voyage and that no promises of a large bonus had been made to him, as was customary on a ship that intended to run the blockade. He also said that as a free Negro he would certainly never have shipped on a vessel which might take him to a Confederate port where he could be sold into slavery. But he did admit that some of the other Negroes in the crew had feared that the Captain might be planning to take them some place to sell them.
Since the Indian was registered under the British flag, Celestino wrote to Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, stating his case. Lyons sent someone from the embassy to interview him and perhaps was responsible for getting him released from the Central Guard House on May 23. When Celestino went to the Indian, he found that his stores had been broken into, his trunks forced open, and his gold and silver taken. Lord Lyons forwarded Celestino’s protest to the State Department, but no action was taken on it there.